James Coburn plays an influential movie producer whose wife, the titular Sheila, storms out of a party after an argument. Sheila leaves on foot, walking the winding Bel Air streets, where she falls victim to an unidentified driver who strikes and kills her.
One year later, Coburn invites six acquaintances, all connected to the party, for a week-long stay on his yacht in the Mediterranean. There, they’ll discuss a potential bio-pic about Sheila and play a series of parlor games. But when the guests learn the games involve their darkest secrets, murder ensues. Minor spoilers follow.
I say minor, dear reader, because I suspect you’ll suss out the “who” in this whodunit long before anyone in the cast. The film doesn’t withhold clues and director Herbert Ross lingers on a key shot long enough for even the sleepiest-eyed viewer to spot what’s awry.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The film’s first-half shines, with improbable screenwriters Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim papering over the logistics of assembling and introducing a cast of suspects with an entertaining Hollywood satire.
Said cast includes the star, played by Raquel Welch, her manager/husband played by Ian McShane, the agent, played by Dyan Cannon, the director, played by James Mason, and finally, the writer, played by Richard Benjamin and his heiress wife, played by Joan Hackett.
All convince in their parts, but Coburn shines as the megalomaniacal producer, Clinton. One guest describes him as “That guy on the corner who winds up his little mechanical men, and they run crazily around.” Sporting a toothy grin and teaming with energy, he’s an impatient audience personified. When one guest vocalizes his inner monologue as exposition, Clinton quips, “Do you move your lips when you read?”
As the film unfolds, Clinton’s games send the characters scurrying down dark cobblestone streets, creeping through a deserted monastery, and prowling a creaky hotel. Perkins and Sondheim continue their pattern of calling out tropes, having McShane, upon entering one such setting, remark, “It’s all rather like a Hammer film, isn’t it?”
This meta-commentary mixed with black humor carries the film. My favorite line comes when one guest, upon discovering a corpse, proclaims, “Apparently, there is a God.”
But great whodunits hold up to repeat viewings. While I enjoyed The Last of Sheila, I enjoyed it a little less the second time. The third act stumbles as the humor dries up and the film devolves into a straight mystery. Granted, if you’re going to deliver reams of exposition, James Mason, with his trademark inflection, is the way to go. But the film leans on its clever revelations as a crutch, and without their surprise, it proves tedious. The cynical dénouement helps, but comes too late.